Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


Archive for the 'Writing Life' Category

Still she persisted…

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

A retrospective on the first thirty years of my writing career.

It’s been thirty years since my first publication. That was a short story called “Spectral Expectations” that appeared in Analog magazine. I was twenty-six years old at the time, a stay-at-home mom caring for my first baby, born just a couple of months earlier.

That was a different age. The Internet-as-we-know-it didn’t exist yet and all correspondence was via snail-mail. I don’t remember all the details, but I know I was thrilled when my copy of the magazine finally arrived. I was on my way!

Surely I was on my way?

The truth is, I didn’t make any sort of splash with my early stories and it took me another seven years to see my first novel in print. But after that I was definitely on my way. Never mind the low advance or that the novel was published as a mass-market paperback with no hardcover edition. As counterbalance it had a gorgeous Bruce Jensen cover and fantastic reviews. It even went on to win the Locus Award for best first novel and surely that meant readers were paying attention?

Three more novels quickly followed — and unfortunately for me I soon learned that most readers were not paying attention. All four novels — what today I call the Nanotech Succession — failed to sell in meaningful numbers, and all soon went out of print. This was a hard lesson for a still-young writer to accept: Critical success does not automatically translate to market success.

My original publisher, Bantam, was done with me. This was 1998. Eleven years after that first story.

So what was a girl to do? Hell, I’d invested too much to quit, so I forged on.

And I got lucky. I found a new home at Tor. I was lucky a second time when a novella of mine received a Nebula award.

I’ll admit though that I didn’t feel lucky. The psychology of intermittent rewards is pernicious and I felt like the rat in the lab hitting the lever, running the maze, hoping I’d get a proper reward this time. But the rewards didn’t come close to balancing the time and effort it took to get them. Yes, I was finally getting hardcover publication at Tor. That was a good thing, but communications with my editor were problematic and I would have happily bought back the second book in the contract if only I could have afforded to do so.

This was around 2001-2002. Let’s say fourteen years since my first published story. This was not a good time for me. I didn’t feel respected as a writer, I felt helpless to turn my career around, and I felt foolish for all the time, intellect, and emotion I’d invested in this so-called career. Put bluntly, I’d had enough. I decided the time had come for the lab rat to retire. It was a good time to make the move. My kids were older — a teen and tween — and I didn’t need to worry about daycare. So I got a real job.

I hope I will always remember the feeling of utter relief and of gratitude as I drove to the office for my first day of work — a $10 an hour job coding websites for an ambitious local ISP. The pay wasn’t much, the commute was long, and I saw a lot less of my kids, but there was immense satisfaction in adding a small but steady paycheck to the family income. It wasn’t all on my husband’s shoulders anymore.

I completed a couple of writing projects in the ensuing years — a middle-grade novel and an epic fantasy — both very different from the sort of high-tech adult fiction I’d written before. No surprise — both failed to sell to traditional publishers. Meanwhile, I moved from HTML work into PHP programming — and for a long time I loved it. Programming possesses some of the enthralling complexity of novel writing, but with programming the goal is solid, explicit — you know when you’ve got it right, and that’s a very satisfying feeling. With fiction, right/good/quality is a much more nebulous affair, a matter of opinion, and you never really know if your work is as good as it can be or even good enough.

Still … did I really want to expend my creative talents building an ecommerce website so someone could over-charge for gourmet coffee?

Ha! Yes. After several years on the job, I literally asked myself this question.

It wasn’t a question I had to answer, though. I knew it was just a matter of time until the decision was made for me. Our programming shop had always been a money loser and it was clear we were not going to be around forever, so I stuck it out until I was laid off during the great recession.

As it happened, I was laid off with the right skills and at the right time to join the indie publishing revolution. By the spring of 2011 — twenty-four years after that first published story — I’d re-published most of my backlist as ebooks and I’d started writing original fiction again.

The lab rat had re-entered the maze.

The rewards were small just as they’d always been, but for the first time I was in control of my work. I loved that. It was fun. And in 2014 the unexpected happened — my first science fiction novel in ten years wound up on the final ballot of the Nebula Awards. This stroke of luck turned into a nice traditional publishing contract along with a TV option. Hey, hey, hey! Twenty-seven years after that first published story I was finally on my way!

Uh, no.

Once again, just as with my first novel, everything seemed to go right except for that sticky part about selling enough copies to keep publishers interested. It brings to mind a line from the Roseanne sit-com, when the family’s electricity is turned off and Roseanne declares (I paraphrase) “Well, it was nice to visit the middle class for a while.”

Hey, it was nice to look like I was on my way … for a while.

I sometimes find myself metaphorically side-eyeing young writers who’ve hit it big the first time out. Does that early success give them a heady confidence that mutes the inner critic, slays the self-doubt, allows the words to flow? I imagine it does for some, though I know it doesn’t always work that way. Success can sometimes be as challenging as failure. On the other hand, success usually pays better.

And still she persisted…

I’m not done yet. Now, thirty years after that first published story, I’m getting ready to publish a new novel. “Once a writer, always a writer,” my agent says. Maybe this new novel will be the one to hit. Maybe not. That’s out of my hands.

What I get to choose is whether or not I make another play — and I’m grateful to have that choice. Being able to make that choice is a blessing not bestowed on everyone. Though my writing career has followed a crooked, stumbling path, life has been very kind to me. I’m still here, and I still have the time and the ability to continue writing for at least a little longer.

There are many other writers who could tell you a similar career story, many others who have persisted as long, or longer, than I have, some in far tougher circumstances. You know who you are, and I raise my mug to you! 🍺 All praise and honor to you on the long road!

So what’s my end goal? To write a really damn good book of course, but also to finally win enough readers that my husband — who’s been carrying the load forever — feels secure enough to fully retire.

Thirty years is a long time to persist in this game, but I’m going to bang the lever at least a couple more times. What the hell. Maybe I’ll hit and have the ironic pleasure of hearing myself described as an “overnight success.” 😉

Looking Back, and Looking Ahead

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Here we are at the end of the year. It’s a good time to take stock of writerly things. This isn’t meant to be a whiny post. More of a looking-reality-straight-in-the-eye post — and looking ahead at what’s to come

~~~~~

Some writers have nicely ascending career paths. There may be a few setbacks, but overall the trend is up. For many of us – dare I say most of us? – that’s not how it goes. Oh sure, we enjoy the occasional triumph, but our careers are mostly a long, lonely slog through tough, soggy, mosquito-filled terrain, with only an occasional glimpse of snow-capped peaks rising in the distance—the Olympian heights! (This being a metaphor for bestseller lists, in case you missed that.)

For a while, it looked like The Red trilogy was going to be my path out of the fens — if not to the magic mountains, then at least to more solid ground. I mean, the critical response was pretty damn encouraging. Check out some of the crazy quotes here.

If you’re new to this blog and you’ve never heard of these books, here’s a brief history:

Back in 2013, I decided to self-publish the first of the trilogy, The Red: First Light, rather than trying to sell it to a traditional publisher. This was my first science fiction novel in ten years, and it went on to become a finalist for the Nebula award and second runner-up for the John W. Campbell Memorial award. It was picked up by Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press, given a gorgeous new cover, and in that incarnation was named as a Publishers Weekly best book of 2015. Saga Press published the second and third books in the trilogy in quick succession. Book 3, Going Dark, tied for first runner up for the Campbell Memorial award.

So I had reasons to get my hopes up, right?

These books had the most commercial potential of anything I’ve written. They are action oriented, and they extrapolate on real-world technology and politics. They are also heroic stories in which the actions of individuals do matter. Yes, they are written in a cynical tone (an amusingly snarky tone, I hope), but this was cynicism wrapped around a core of idealism. In other words, they’re culturally appropriate for a large swath of American readership. As evidence of that, they’ve had multiple inquiries regarding film and TV rights, and in fact were optioned for TV (an agreement now expired).

This was all far more than I’d expected … but the path peters out if potential readers miss those reviews, or if they decide for reasons of their own to skip the books, or if they never hear of the books at all because they don’t read reviews and rely instead on chance, name recognition, or word of mouth to choose their next read.

The trilogy garnered enthusiastic readers — and I’m grateful for every one of you! — but despite all the good omens, it failed to capture the attention of enough readers to make it a success. Sales languished. The books sank out of sight.

Hell, yes, this was disappointing. And I could write a long, disgruntled post speculating on the reasons why it happened — in fact I did — but I’ll spare you that. We’re here at the turn of the year and it’s time to move on, because…

I’VE GOT ANOTHER NOVEL ON THE WAY!

::cheers::

::confetti::

Hey, I’m excited about it. I hope you are too. I really, really hope you’re excited, because I’m going to need you’re support on this.

So what’s it called? What’s it about? That post will go up at the New Year. But here’s a hint:

In these crazy, frightening, rapidly changing times my focus has been captured by the near future. Where are we going? What are some of the implications of our rapidly developing technologies? What impact might they have on the way we see ourselves, and on what we value in ourselves, given that we are still operating under the templates of our ancient tribal minds? These are some of the themes behind a thriller that’s written on a very human scale.

So check back soon. And in the meantime, if you haven’t done so already, sign up for my occasional newsletter (see the form in the upper right column). It’s one more way to keep in touch.

“Done”

Monday, October 10th, 2016

I just sent my agent the final-for-now version of the new novel. Naturally, as soon as I decided it was done, my writing mojo went on vacation…which is making it difficult to write a short story that I need to get done. :-/

Home Again + Progress Report

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Road to Lassen NPHome again and happy to be here!

Oddly enough, the football season determined our travel schedule this year — the University of Hawaii’s football season, to be precise. Ron is an avid fan, so when he heard the UH team would be opening the 2016 season in Sydney, we decided that would be a fine time to revisit Australia. But we also wanted to visit family in the Pacific Northwest. The only time we could do that — without Ron missing any home games — was last week.

So we had two-and-a-half weeks between trips, with a friend visiting us in between — and that didn’t leave me much time to write!

What am I working on? Well, the same new novel that I’ve mentioned in recent progress reports, including that last, “final” report. (In this business, “final” is a relative term.)

At last report, I mentioned that I’d sent the manuscript to my agent. He read it while we were down under and gave it a very enthusiastic thumbs-up. But he also had a few suggestions that he thought would enhance the closing sequence. His ideas made sense to me, so I agreed to undertake one more round of revision — and I’m really pleased with the results so far.

I’ve got just a couple more items to address before I send the manuscript back. I’d best get on that.

More soon…

Flying out of Oakland

100 Words

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

A post for writers:

“100 Words” is a game I play when I’m having a hard time getting a new short story started. (In other words, just about every time I’m trying to get a new short story started.) The game is exactly what it sounds like: I make a deal with myself that I only have to be concerned with writing another 100 words.

My story development process begins with an idea, often just a setting, sometimes a situation. Never a character, unless I’m writing about a character I’ve already developed in some other work. No doubt your process is different.

Once I have this starting kernal, I do a lot of brainstorming at the keyboard — nonstop writing in which I ask myself questions about the story and try to answer them. I look for the setting, the situation, the spine of the external plot, the character, the internal plot.

Long ago I read the advice that a short story should be about the most important incident in a character’s life. Clearly this requirement is flexible — a single character can appear in many stories after all — but I think the general concept is good to keep in mind. The incident that takes place in the story needs to profoundly affect your main character. That’s what will make your story emotionally interesting, and provide you with an internal plot, meaning that your character learns, and changes. For better? For worse? Hey, it could go either way.

(more…)

“On Proposal” vs “On Spec”

Sunday, July 24th, 2016

If you’re aiming for the traditional publishing market, there are two basic approaches. You can try to sell your novel “on proposal” or you can try to write it “on spec.”

“On Proposal” is an option that generally is only available to writers with a track record. Either you’ve sold novels before, or you’re an admired short story writer, or your nonfiction credentials carry weight, or maybe you’re a celebrity. What constitutes a proposal can vary widely. I think it’s safe to say that the bigger a writer’s name value, the briefer the proposal. But typically, a proposal involves writing a synopsis of the novel, as well as the first two or three chapters. It’s a running joke among writers that the story told in this initial synopsis will have only a minor resemblance to the story told in the finished novel.

Many, perhaps most, novelists look at selling on proposal as the way it’s done — get your contract first, get an advance on your work, and then write the book. That way, you know you’re not wasting your time writing something that no one will buy. Writing on proposal is smart.

I like writing on spec.

Just one more of my bull-headed quirks. 🙂

Writing “on spec” means you’re embarked on a speculative venture, that you’re investing time and money in writing and completing a novel that is not under contract, so all the risk is yours. Maybe no one will buy it. May it will turn out far better than anyone expected and it will sell quickly and well. Who knows?

For me, the great thing about writing on spec is that all the choices are mine. I can take the novel in whatever direction I want, explore whatever genre I want, and I can set my own deadlines. It’s a risk|freedom equation. And I know that if I don’t get an offer, or if I don’t get one I like, I still own the story and I can publish it myself.

It’s true this means I’ll get no advance on my work, but most advances don’t offer enough money to actually live on, so this doesn’t weigh too heavily. It does, however, make the monthly sales of my backlist books — those older titles that I’ve republished under my own imprint — more important, since that’s what generates my income between the rare checks from publishers.

As always, every writer’s circumstance and path through this industry is different, and there’s no best way.

The Heroine Question

Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

I wrote this last year, as part of a series hosted by writer Alyx Dellamonica called The Heroine Question. Participants are asked three standard questions, and one bonus. I meant to re-post this on my own blog LAST YEAR, but…I seem to have forgotten. Here it is now.

(1) Is there a literary heroine on whom you imprinted as a child? A first love, a person you wanted to become as an adult, a heroic girl or woman you pretended to be on the playground at recess? Who was she?

So many details of childhood have faded into the mists of time, but one literary heroine I clearly remember is Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved the Little House On The Prairie books and read every volume our library had on the shelf. These were adventure stories, telling of a life alien to me but one that I could understand—and I’m still drawn to adventure stories. But I didn’t dream of being Laura. Though the Little House books were based on real life, it was another real-life woman who truly captured my young imagination.

On the pages of National Geographic and in Time/Life nature books I read about the biologist Jane Goodall and her work studying chimpanzees in their natural habitat—living in the rainforest and becoming accepted by these creatures that were so much like us but so different. That, I decided, was what I wanted to do as an adult. And while I ultimately went in a different direction, Jane Goodall’s presence in my imagination surely encouraged an interest in biology and natural history that I still possess.

(2) Can you remember what it was she did or what qualities she had that captured your affections and your imagination so strongly? (more…)

Awards: What are they good for?

Friday, March 4th, 2016

The Trials by Linda Nagata, UK editionIn a word: Publicity.

With thousands of books published every month (and all those earlier books still available, if not in print, then in ebook form) what are the odds of any particular book being noticed? Well, the odds are not good.

On occasion I will hear that “awards don’t matter” and for many titles this is true. They sell abundantly regardless of short lists. But I can say from personal experience that being short-listed for a significant award really does increase a book’s visibility, and I think it’s a safe bet that winning a significant award increases visibility exponentially. So, since I really don’t want to see my books quietly fade away, I’ve made it a point to try to get them considered for awards.

Going Dark by Linda Nagata, UK editionWith the Hugos and the Nebulas there’s not a lot you can do beyond saying “Hey, voters, please consider my book.” With other awards, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, for example, the publisher has to send print copies of a qualified book to a jury of judges.

All three of the awards I just mentioned are open to all novels published in their area of interest in the award year, regardless of who the publisher is … in other words, they are technically open to self-published novels.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award
Much to my disappointment, another major award, the Arthur C. Clarke award, is not open to self-published novels. The Clarke Award is a juried award for best science fiction novel published in the United Kingdom, but when I asked if I could send in the UK editions of The Trials and Going Dark, I was told those books did not qualify because they had been published under my own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. (The North American edition is published by Saga Press/Simon & Schuster.)

Yes, I was disappointed, but I am not criticizing. The award administrators have a very challenging job as it is, and it’s certainly up to them to set the rules. I was also told that they are continuing to review their policy regarding self-published submissions.

Unlike most awards that I’m aware of, the Clarke Award releases a list of those books that have been submitted for consideration. This list of novels was published today. It includes 113 titles — with just 33% by women.

I would have loved to increase that percent just a little! Ah well.

I do encourage you to read the commentary that follows the list of books. There is some interesting analysis and a brief discussion on the focus of the award, and on the question of “What is science fiction?”

Publishers Weekly: Best Books of 2015

Friday, October 30th, 2015

The Red - Saga EditionBack in May I was thrilled when The Red was named to the Publishers Weekly list “Best Summer Books 2015 — SF/ Fantasy/ Horror.”

I’m even more astonished now, because today the Publishers Weekly reviewers have posted their “Best Books of 2015.” Only six books are on the science fiction, fantasy, and horror list, and The Red is one of them. This is certainly a once-in-a-lifetime honor!

Other books on PW’s SFF best of the year list are the collection Ghost Summer: Stories by Tananarive Due, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, Uprooted by Naomi Novik (I just started listening to this one on audio book), The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, and The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson. Congratulations to all!

Scroll through the list here.

Two Weeks

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

There are only two more weeks until the Saga Press edition of The Red is released. These last days before a book drops are a nerve-wracking time, at least for me, facing that big question: how will sales go? Really hoping that all this effort will prove worthwhile!

The Red will release simultaneously in hardcover, mass-market paperback, ebook, and audio book editions. Just a few days ago I received a copy of both the finished paperback and the hardcover, and they are gorgeous books. The team at Saga Press has done a terrific job.

TRFL-hc-pb-500x332

In the meantime, more reviews are posting. Here are two from the past week:

Over at SFF World, Rob H. Bedford says:

Nagata manages to bring many familiar elements together (and few SF frameworks are as familiar or popular as Military SF) into something that manages to echo great stories that preceded it while still engaging in a powerfully refreshing fashion. In The Red, Nagata manages one of the most seamless, enjoyable, and enthralling meldings in SF of that familiar and “new spin.” […] Highly Recommended.

Read Rob’s full review here.

At the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Rich Rosell says:

Nagata’s modern-day-or-not-far-from-it creations seem both plausible and fantastic. That air of plausibility is essential for a genre-straddler like this; there is a believably organic texture to the various hardware, software, and weapons. The meshing of humans with technology–leading, inevitably, to dangerous co-dependence–is seamlessly presented. And man oh man, it is exciting.

Read the full review here.

If you’d like to read the opening pages of The Red, you’ll find them online here.

I hope you’ll consider preordering a copy in your favorite format.

Also consider signing up for my “Occasional Newsletter”, for a reminder when each book in The Red Trilogy releases. Book 2, The Trials, will publish in August, and Book 3, Going Dark, is scheduled for November.

Thank you!